Commercial Music: Is it Selling Out or a Different Kind of Talent

Writing Commercial Music, music that sells well in today's market place is tougher than you think

Charlie Brooker recently posted an article in the Guardian, "How to save the British film industry, David Cameron style." It's all about how David Cameron thinks the British film industry ought to focus on commercial movies (according to Mr Brooker). Add to this a recent CD I received for review which is the soundtrack for a web based television show and you'll understand why this is the topic of my post today!

Commercial music is music which focuses on what an audience wants and delivers it. "Serious" composers often put down commercial music as selling out, trying to make money rather than writing music - but I'm not sure they are presenting an honest picture of what it takes to write commercial music. Yes, there is certainly a fair amount of derivative crap in commercial music; bubble gum pop is churned out by the thousands because it's so formulaic. Yet, writing for film where the composer is trying to capture the mood of the moving images as well as kindle something that connects with the audience isn't particularly easy. If you focus on the action, proving accents for the movements you're "Micky Mousing" the music. And if you just rip off some one else's stuff it doesn't play as original.

John Williams has been hammered because his music sounds so very much like other great composers. Well, yes, he's drawing on their connection with audiences to provide music which takes that connection and heightens the experience with the film. Think of the Marconi spaghetti Westerns and the iconic flute and guitar. It's hard to not use flute and guitar when composing for a Western now, because it has that audience connection the music needs to succeed. If you write sweeping orchestral themes based on shifting tri-tone harmonies you end up giving the audience the feeling the whole film is taking place in outer space (shifting tri-tones have been popular for space film music since the beginning).

The CD I'm currently listening to is filled with fairly straight forward music, most of it in common time and I've yet to notice anything particularly challenging in terms of harmonic progression or even striking tonal color. It does capture the essence of the video extremely well. When I watched the episodes on my computer, I was blown away by how effective the music was at creating the mood of the (dare I say) B-grade filming. It's not great cinema, but the music does well to elevate it to more than perhaps it deserves. Even with that the episodes have a sizable fan base and they LOVE the music. Of course they do! It was written with them in mind.

Commercial music isn't just film music. There are numerous other composers who are not writing for film which are writing accessible, audience pleasing works, music which connects with people on first hearing. This isn't easy to do. If you sound too much like Brahms or Schubert you get passed over, plus the music won't have a 21st century sound. The key is to take what is happening in the current trends of classical music, find ways to incorporate that which still maintains audience appeal and package it together into something the musician will want to play, to find challenging --not an easy task.

So, for all of you who find writing commercial music as a sell out - have you ever tried writing it? Maybe, if you did AND it sold well, you have enough money to write the stuff you really want. I rather suspect one reason more composers don't try to do this is because writing commercial music is tougher than it sounds.


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